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In the fight against gun violence, Shreveport leaders search for ways to save lives

A neighborhood sign in Shreveport, Louisiana, seems to address the city’s rise in violence on April 17, 2024.
Maya Miller
/
Gulf States Newsroom
A neighborhood sign in Shreveport, Louisiana, seems to address the city’s rise in violence on April 17, 2024. As violent crime slows down across the South, Shreveport is reckoning with the aftermath of an unusually deadly 2023.

There's a pastoral feel to the country lane in Shreveport, Louisiana, where a mass shooting took place last summer.

Long green grasses wave in the breeze and lazy butterflies circulate as city councilwoman Tabatha Taylor describes the aftermath of the shooting, which took place at a well-known annual Fourth of July block party.

She points out where she gave a press conference the following morning, and where shell casings covered the ground.

The incident in the former Cooper Road neighborhood "ripped us to shreds, ripped our hearts to shreds," Taylor said, her voice breaking slightly.

"When you saw people in their homes or men lying in ditches and crying, and saying, 'Lord have mercy,' I was just wondering, was I going to make it out alive?"

City Councilwoman Tabatha Taylor stands near the intersection of Pearl Street and Jones Mabry Road in Shreveport, Louisiana, on April 17, 2024.
Maya Miller
/
Gulf States Newsroom
City Councilwoman Tabatha Taylor stands near the intersection of Pearl Street and Jones Mabry Road in Shreveport, Louisiana, on April 17, 2024. Taylor recalls a 2023 mass shooting that happened nearby on July 4.

Asviolent crime slows down across the South, Shreveport is reckoning with the aftermath of an unusually deadly 2023. Murders spiked and shootings with multiple victims dismayed community members.

Four people died and several were injured during last year's Independence Day shooting, which made national headlines. It was one of eight mass shootings in Shreveport in 2023, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Mass shootings are commonly defined as when four or more people are shot. Research shows the causes of gun violence are manifold, from access to weapons via gun laws to social factors within communities.

Despite that complexity, cities can do things at the local level that are "incredibly effective," said James Densley, deputy director of the Violence Prevention Research Center at Hamline University.

Specifically, Densley said police and community partnerships on the grassroots level "where you're tackling the most prolific offenders of gun violence, and where you're providing resources to get people diverted out of that lifestyle," show a lot of impact.

But, ultimately, reducing gun violence, and other violent crime, starts "very simply — with making a commitment to saving lives," he said.

The situation in Shreveport, and residents' efforts to push back, illustrate the challenge of fighting gun violence in a community that some locals say struggles on multiple fronts. It also mirrors a long-running battle against gun casualties in Southern cities such as Jackson or Birmingham, which particularly impact communities of color.

Taylor pushed unsuccessfully to have Shreveport declare a state of emergency on gun violence last year. She and other stakeholders said addressing the issue goes beyond law enforcement and calls for investments in education, the economy and youth and parenting support.

"For years, almost decades, there has been this area of neglect... We have to change that," Taylor said.

Understanding the issue

Shreveport Police Chief Wayne Smith sits in a police station conference room for an interview on April 17, 2024.
Kat Stromquist
/
Gulf States Newsroom
Shreveport Police Chief Wayne Smith sits in a police station conference room for an interview on April 17, 2024. Smith says combating crime within relationships is a challenge.

Shreveport Police Chief Wayne Smith said years ago, he worked as a patrol cop in the former Cooper Road — now Martin Luther King Jr. — neighborhood, where the Fourth of July shooting occurred. After four decades on the force, he feels the weight of each gun death.

Since he took over the department, beginning with an interim post in 2021, Smith said its initiatives include assuming control of a real-time crime center that monitors 1,300 surveillance cameras, and investments in technology and "intelligence-led" policing. The city has also worked collaboratively with federal law enforcement and community partners.

"I don't understand, myself, what's causing things to go in a negative direction," Smith said, sighing.

In a unique approach, Smith has spent time interviewing formerly incarcerated people and people affected by the juvenile justice system. He said they often recount problems that began in childhood and family life.

One constant, bedeviling challenge for officers is finding ways to curtail gun violence within relationships, where Smith said this area's crime tends to be concentrated.

"Eighty or 90, even more percent of them — the victims and the suspects know each other,” he said. “They're not strangers. ... How do you regulate that? How do you enforce that?"

As Louisiana loosens its concealed-carry restrictions, Smith adds that the easy availability of dangerous weapons contributes to violence. That was one piece of feedback he heard in conversations with people who'd been involved in the justice system.

"Some would tell me that getting a gun on the street was just as easy as going to Circle K, buying a soda pop," he said.

The department also has convened a citizen's advisory group to aid its work. One aim of such groups is often to foster relationships between police and community members, which some residents interviewed for this series said had not always been warm in Shreveport.

‘I’ve been down these roads’

Robert Bruchun stands outside a friend's home on April 18, 2024, in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Maya Miller
/
Gulf States Newsroom
Robert Bruchun stands outside a friend's home on April 18, 2024, in Shreveport, Louisiana. Bruchun works on grassroots violence intervention with the nonprofit BEST 13.

Law enforcement officials aren't the only ones focused on how relationships impact Shreveport's gun violence. It's most of what Robert Bruchun thinks about for his gang violence intervention work with the nonprofit BEST 13.

He describes that role during a lunch break in his grandma's neighborhood of Lakeside, a historically Black corner of the city. As birds chirp overhead, Bruchun points to a small store now barred with plywood and describes how two elementary schools are gone.

"When people say they have nothing, like, over here, we have nothing," he said. "We don't have [any] resources."

In his view, limited job opportunities and accompanying depression in younger people, paired with strong neighborhood or gang ties, act as tinder for violence.

Bruchun's work in response is low-tech, but high stakes. When conflicts occur, he acts as an informal mediator to try to prevent retaliatory shootings and other violence. This means he spends a lot of his time in "the nightlife ... or the streetlife," trying to shore up his relationships with community members across neighborhoods.

"I've been down these roads," he said‌. "And I'm trying to prevent you from doing it because trouble is easy to get into, but it's hard to get out."

Though Bruchun wasn't familiar with the term, his work is akin to a credible messenger program. The approach pairs community members with shared lived experiences with people who might go on to be involved in crime to serve as mentors. They also work on violence intervention.

That work makes use of a well-known premise in criminology: that people who go on to commit crimes are often victims of violence themselves. Stopping one shooting before it happens can likely have ripple effects that extend into the future.

People end up "trapped in these cycles of retaliation, where gun violence kind of reverberates back and forth," said Densley, the violence prevention expert.

Evidence of that reverberation is apparent at Ochsner | LSU Health-Shreveport, which has a program based on intervention for children with gunshot wounds. Program coordinator Michael Nolan said when proposing the program a few years ago, their data showed rates of kids with firearm injuries that were two or three times higher than comparable trauma centers.

"We knew we had to do something," he said.

Nolan said treating gunshot wounds can be a "teachable moment" to change a child's path. The program connects kids and families with social workers' assessments and connections to services, such as mental health care, access to food and job training for parents.

While the program is only a few years old, Nolan said the hospital wants to "get it where it's a little closer to the prevention side." The program recently expanded its availability to kids with penetrating injuries from violence, such as stabbings.

All-encompassing efforts needed

Some issues residents said are driving violence may be bigger than the community can address on its own.

City Councilwoman Taylor gave the example of social media, with its potential for luring young people into posturing, bullying and feuds that can turn deadly.

"We can't go back and just think about the time when we grew up,” she said. “It's a different time.”

The city's approach, she said, needs to encompass efforts to destigmatize mental health treatment, engage community members, develop the workforce and chip away at systemic racism.

Listening to young people, who are the most affected by violence in their peer group, also is important to her.

"I don't think [the answer] is locking up everybody and sending them away forever. Young people make mistakes," Taylor said.

Even in the verdant area where last year's Fourth of July shooting took place, Taylor is cheerfully interrupted by constituents. One man slows as he drives past to ask her for a phone call, and another man, Terry Savannah, ambles out to the street from his nearby property to chat.

Savannah, too, paints gun violence in the area as a complex problem that demands more than a simple response. On a basic level, he feels people simply don't talk to each other or resolve conflicts as they used to.

"The community — it's poverty-stricken," he said. “Instead of opening schools, we're closing the schools, and building more jails.”

Savannah's family hosts the block party that ended in tragedy last year. He said they planned to host this year's event but with some changes, to be more cautious.

"I've seen it on TV before, and you look at all the mass shootings and everything... you never think it would be close to home. But it was — real close to home," he said. "[I was] born and raised in that house."

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

Kat Stromquist is a senior reporter covering justice, incarceration and gun violence for the Gulf States Newsroom.